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In all the years of Spanish my sons took in school, the cultural units dwelled upon literature, poetry, painting, and drama, but barely a word about music. Indeed, of all the great European civilizations, Spain’s contributions to serious music seem negligible. Foreign composers, especially the French, often were intrigued by their exotic neighbor, but not until the early 20th century did Spanish composers belatedly emerge to produce work of distinctive local character. Late in careers otherwise squandered on trivial occasional piano pieces, Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados each produced a single masterpiece — “Iberia” (1909) and “Goyescas” (1912). They were inspired by Felipe Pedrell (1841-1922), a scholar who fervently proselytized for a rediscovery of Spanish polyphony, which had flourished hundreds of years earlier, and for turning to folk music as the essence of the expression of the Spanish people. But it fell to Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) to achieve Pedrell’s goal and to legitimize Spanish music to the rest of the world. As outlined by biographers Jaime Patrissa and Suzanne Desmarquez, the origins of this style were Arab, with intense and irregular rhythms, sharp attacks, rough endings, and wide vibrato, all presented through guitar accompaniment, castanets, zapateado (foot stamping and tapping), palmar (hand clapping), rapid triple meters, harmonies based on open guitar chords, and melismatic beginnings and ends of long-held notes. According to his student Adolfo Salazar, Falla rejected basing his music directly on folklore, but rather used it as the seeds of his own style, extracting the substance of its sonorities, rhythms, and spirit. To David Ewen, Falla was a mystic who sought out and assimilated the soul of Spain to produce a vibrant evocation rather than a literal depiction. Only in 1905 did Falla produce his first major work — “La Vida Breve” (“The Brief Life”), his only opera. Although intended as serious drama, “La Vida Breve” is hobbled by perhaps the most absurd plot in all of opera, even by the meager and forgiving standards of that genre — a jilted woman avenges herself by crashing her lover’s wedding and dropping dead! It’s also rather ironic for an opera that the vocal sections seem a pale imitation of Italian verismo while the writing of truly intense national character infuses its vibrant instrumental dances and interlude, which fortunately make up about a third of the score and are often heard by themselves in concert. Although “La Vida Breve” won first prize in a prestigious national competition, Falla couldn’t get it published or performed. Disillusioned with his country’s apathy toward native art, he went to Paris, where he absorbed the lessons of French impressionism that would enrich his own writing with its complementary emphases on efficiency and resourceful orchestration. After seven years in Paris, Falla returned to Madrid upon the outbreak of World War I. There, Pastora Imperio, a legendary ballerina of Gypsy background, commissioned him to write a song and dance, which soon evolved into a full-blown story based upon legends recounted by her mother and fashioned into a scenario by Gregorio Sierra (although recently it has been suggested that Sierra’s wife Maria ghost-wrote this and most of his work). Fortunately for posterity, the Madrid premiere of the original version (on Naxos 553499) was a failure. Perhaps sensing a greater work within, Falla condensed and refashioned the score into an abstract ballet, trading plot progression for artistic structure, excising all the dialogue that had interrupted and obscured some of his most captivating music, removing a song and monologue that had more narrative than musical interest, and expanding the eight-piece ensemble into a full orchestra for a richer, more versatile sound. He emerged with the work that stands as his artistic legacy — “El Amor Brujo” (“Love, the Magician”). The plot is disarmingly simple — a gypsy is possessed by the ghost of her faithless former lover until her new suitor contrives for a beautiful friend to entice it away. Every one of the 13 scenes evokes a diverse mood that is seamlessly integrated into a moving tapestry of enthralling but restrained human feeling. The emphatic rhythm, compressed tonal range, and alternating long notes and rapid sequencing of the opening fanfare both command attention and herald the style of the vocals to come. Three sections contain songs of the cruelty and deceptions of love, delivered by an off-stage mezzo-soprano in that chesty, guttural style unique to Spanish folksong that projects languid yet spellbinding lust. The piquant “Dance of Terror” and the intense “Ritual Fire Dance” have become famous as orchestral excerpts and piano transcriptions. “In the Cave” evokes a quest of timeless mystery as incisive, fragmentary events flit expectantly over the calming lull of sustained strings. “The Magic Circle” summons timeless wonderment with a pre-tonal medieval sound. A “Pantomime” conjures a meltingly lovely tango reverie in 7 Falla’s supreme gift, fully evident in “El Amor Brujo,” is to suggest a multitude of distinctive sounds rather than to depict them. Perhaps the most magical moment is a passing scene that clearly evokes the chimes of midnight, but without a single chime; rather, the effect is induced entirely with a resourceful combination of brass, strings, and piano. Indeed, despite the essential Spanish character of the work, nowhere do we hear an actual tambourine, castanet, hand clap, foot stomp, flamenco tap, or even a guitar, yet in a sense they all are present throughout and deeply felt. This is the ultimate feat of art — to use surrogate means to produce a sensation even more vivid than the real thing would have been. Perhaps in keeping with Falla’s extraordinary sublimation of the simmering passion of his culture, all the recordings of “El Amor Brujo” led by Spanish conductors are sultry and reserved, letting the music and its inherent ardor unfold patiently and subtly. There’s little to chose among them — all have a refreshingly casual aura and feature soloists raised in the Spanish folk tradition who exhibit a keenly affecting sense of genuine style. Most others — including Lorin Maazel (DG), Fritz Reiner (RCA), Charles Dutoit (Decca), and even Leonard Bernstein (Sony) — try to emulate this approach, but with incongruous operatic soloists. At the risk of contempt for authenticity, if all these seem too prosaic, that sorcerer of sound Leopold Stokowski (at age 82!) unleashes a razor-sharp and ecstatic, if unidiomatic, alternative in a stunning 1964 concert with the BBC Symphony (on BBC or Music and Arts). Curiously, although the original score is marked with a duration of 19 minutes, no recording runs less than 23, and indeed it’s hard to imagine the score’s manifold beauties revealed so swiftly. While all of these recordings are of the concert-hall version, “El Amor Brujo” is, after all, a ballet. It’s marvelously danced by the late Antonio Gades (who also choreographed) and Christine Hoyos in a 1986 movie by Carlos Saura, who spreads Falla’s pieces among an added hour that expands the plot and characters amid atmospheric folk songs and blazing flamenco dancing. There’s an awesome knife fight to a percussion score, and the “Ritual Fire Dance” is energized by a huge blazing nighttime bonfire. Wisely, Saura concludes with the unaltered end of the ballet, eloquent and haunting. At the same 1916 concert as the premiere of his reworked “El Amor Brujo,” Falla also introduced his “Noches en los Jardines de España” (“Nights in the Gardens of Spain”) for piano and orchestra, in which native melody and figuration shimmer in the lush atmosphere of French impressionism. Written mostly before leaving Paris, its three nocturnes present a panorama of the aromas of an Iberian night of wonder. Falla himself called them expressive rather than descriptive, and tempered by melancholy and mystery. In 1919, Falla wrote another half-hour ballet, “El Sombrero de Tres Picos” (“The Three-Cornered Hat”) for the Ballet Russe, based on a folk tale of an elderly governor’s comic and frustrating attempts to seduce a miller’s wife. Although its wonderful dances, often excerpted, have a quintessentially Spanish sound, local critics claimed that the work co-opted their culture, leading the composer to note with irony that he felt like a Spaniard while abroad but like a foreigner when in Spain. Based on entertainment that enthralled him as a child, “El Retablo de Maese Pedro” (“Master Peter’s Puppet Show”) (1923) takes the concept of a show within a show one key step further. To depict the episode from Cervantes’ Don Quixote in which the delusional knight attacks stage villains and destroys a puppet theater, Falla mounts a real puppet show, but with a catch — the entire audience of the Don and his entourage, and even the innkeeper and puppeteer, are all puppets themselves! Indeed, the whole fanciful thing is seen through a child’s eyes — each incident of the story is introduced by a youthful narrator, fleeting scenes match a short attention span, emotions are gentle, and the overall tone is one of lighthearted whimsy. The famous harpsichordist Wanda Landowska played in the premiere (which, to conjure its medieval setting, featured a prominent part for her instrument) and was so enchanted that she commissioned what would be Falla’s last major work — his Harpsichord Concerto (1926). Despite the title, this 12-minute gem wasn’t a traditional concerto (in which a solo instrument contends against a full orchestra); rather, the delicate sonority of the harpsichord neatly complements a single flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello. “The spirit matters more than the letter,” Falla told Salazar, and here, rather than state them directly, he spreads largely abstract hints of Spanish themes and rhythms within a lean and austere neoclassic sonority. Falla’s lifetime output was small — he published only 15 pieces, including but one short study for that quintessential Spanish instrument, the guitar. He worked with great care and deliberation — after two decades of struggle, he left a final oratorio incomplete, unworthy of publication. Nearly every one of his works is an acknowledged masterpiece of its type into which he distilled the essence of his creative thoughts. Rather than force his culture into the symphonies, quartets, sonatas, and other traditional European art music formulas, he favored structures that would better display the essence and sensibility of his distinctively Spanish inspiration. Thus did Falla redress centuries of geographic, political, and cultural isolation to bring Spanish music to the attention of the world. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected]. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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